Mauritania Musings Part 2

Our days in Iwik were busy and my time was divided between sanderling work by day and red knot work by night. It was exhausting at times but especially the sanderling work allowed lots of time to observe local life in Iwik. My first impression of Iwik was of houses that looked thrown together from scraps of metal, wood and bits of refuse. Still, the people looked healthy and happy and there were plenty of chickens and goats running around. As soon as they saw me the children asked for “cadeaux” (gifts), thanks to the tourist and researcher tradition of bring gifts in the past. I’m still torn about the idea of handing out money or gifts. I think it encourages begging and I believe that donating to community development (i.e. a school or a fresh water well) might be more useful in the long run.

Our sanderling catching team consisted of four people from four different countries: Canada, Ghana, Mauritania and the Netherlands. It was pretty cool to be sitting in an African fishing village catching birds with such a diverse group. The irony of the whole thing was that we were catching in one of the premier natural areas of the world – on the town’s garage dump. Furthermore, we were attracting birds with rotting fish bits so we were also attracted the town’s chickens and goats! Luckily for us these pests were cheerfully chased away by children who were more than eager to help us.


The child rearing system among the Imraguen struck me as rather more communal than in Canada, Panama or Europe. Many of the children who “helped” us have parents working far away in Nouakchott or Nouadhibou. For this reason the children are taken care of by the community and often stay with adults who are not their parents. Overall, this system seems to work very well and in general the kids are well behaved. It appears as if they run around the town unwatched, but whenever they begin to misbehave an adult appears to take care of them. The children are also extremely tough. To give an example, one of the youngsters picked at a small cut on his foot creating a bleeding wound. Then he ran around barefoot (as usual) among the rusting cans, fish scraps in the garbage. I had alcohol with me to take blood samples and tried to clean his cut. Amazingly, even when I put the alcohol on his wound he didn’t scream or cry, he just flinched a bit then smiled at me. Though he went ahead and ran through the garbage barefoot again later, his cut was healing nicely by the next day.

Daytime sanderling work also occurred at the local “fish delicatessen” where certain types of fish were salted and dried. Of course the term “fish delicatessen” is sarcastic since there is no deli and certainly no cooling facilities, but the processing was interesting to watch. First the fish are gutted and the teenage boys who were performed the task were certainly experts! They could do about two fish a minute, including the time it took to give us the guts for bait. I must admit that being given a handful of steaming fish guts was an entirely novel experience! Next huge amounts of salt were rubbed into the fish leaving them encrusted and then the salted fish were left to dry in pits. Later, half the pit was filled with water and the salt was rinsed off. Finally the fish were taken away by truck for further drying.

There was also time to enjoy the natural setting. In my free time I visited both the outer mudflats and the Baie d’Aoutif by boat, another beautiful bay near the village of Tessot by car. I also walked along stretches of dunes and beach where I could see flamingos, egrets, pelicans, shorebirds, Hoopoe larks and gerbils galore! Working at night also offered a unique natural setting. On calm nights with a sea of stars overhead I could hear birds all around – the trill of dunlins, the piping of redshanks, the honking of flamingos and most impressive the loud beating of huge pelican wings only a few meters away.

On one of our last days we also had the chance to go on the Imraguen’s traditional sailboats for a trip to the sandflat islands of Niroumi and Nair. The best part was sailing through the canals with a literal carpet of shorebirds feeding on the mudflats to either side. The scene became truly spectacular as the tide rose and the birds began to take flight, streaming over our heads in ribbons as they headed to their roosts.

Of course the Imraguen weren’t the only people fishing the waters. Nearly everyday the PNBA coast guard brought in a group of illegal Senegalese fishermen. They were arrested for fishing within the park boundaries, for using a motor on their boats and for using monofilament fishing nets. I was amazed at the size of the Senegalese boats. They are tiny – maybe 6m long with a very small motor. Amazingly a crew of several people lives at sea in this tiny space for days at a time. I am happy that the park is enforcing its laws and apprehending people who break those laws, but at the same time it seems to me that the people I saw arrested are working incredibility hard for the small amount of fish that they catch. And the Banc d’Arguin is threatened by more than “pirate” fishing boats that operate within its boundaries. In my opinion, overfishing by European industrial-scale fleets just outside the Park limits (and the fish know no boundaries) is a much bigger problem. These trawlers are a luxurious contrast to the Senegalese boats and have state-of-the-art catching equipment, freezing facilities and accommodations. They scoop up huge amounts of fish and export the proceeds to Europe while African fishermen are arrested. But the Europeans are not doing anything wrong. They are fishing outside park boundaries and are not breaking the rules … it seems unfair somehow.

Mauritania was an excellent experience for me and was rewarding both in terms of travel experience and in terms of samples for my work. But after spending Christmas away, I was happy to be heading back to my husband at the end of the three weeks. As usual I experienced more culture shock re-entering the “First World” than I ever do the other way around. I’m always taken aback by the excesses of our existence in “the North” whether I am re-entering via the USA, Canada or Europe. Our lives just seem ridiculous after weeks or months of relative simplicity. I usually find the shock worst at the airports: the pervasive advertising (mostly for alcohol which I didn’t see at all in Islamic Mauritania), the glittering buildings, the sterile metal surfaces, and the excessive security. There just seems to be too much of everything! Even the routine procedure of boarding the plane and taking off becomes absurd. To give an example, in Mauritania there was one plane, in the whole airport, one plane. We walked to it, we got on and we took off – immediately. In Paris there were more planes than I could count. We walked to a waiting room and then got onto a mini-bus which idled on the tarmac for half an hour before driving us to the plane. We could have walked to the plane faster, but that wouldn’t have been allowed. Then we idled on the tarmac in the plane for another half hour while waiting our turn to take off. Somehow the simplicity was gone. But my pet peeve, the thing that gets me every time, is the appalling waste of water. I absolutely hate the so called “water-saving” automatic taps and toilets in airports. These things send copious amounts of drinking water down the drain every time someone passes within a meter of them! It is ludicrous and I can’t help thinking, after weeks of getting my water from a well and either boiling it or having to drink expensive bottled water, that we need a happy medium between no running water and water that runs continuously whether we need it or not! But that is another rant :-).

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